The White House is being forced to acknowledge the wide gap between its once-upbeat predictions about the economy and today's bleak landscape.
The administration's annual midsummer budget update is sure to show higher deficits and unemployment and slower growth than projected in President Barack Obama's budget in February and update in May, and that could complicate his efforts to get his signature health care and global-warming proposals through Congress.
The release of the update — usually scheduled for mid-July — has been put off until the middle of next month, giving rise to speculation the White House is delaying the bad news at least until Congress leaves town Aug. 7 on its summer recess.
The administration is pressing for votes before then on its $1 trillion health care initiative, which lawmakers are arguing over how to finance.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Monday blamed the delay entirely on the "transition from one administration to the next" and not from any attempt to deceive Congress.
"The notion that this is somehow out of the ordinary seems somewhat silly," he told reporters.
The White House budget director, Peter Orszag, said on Sunday that the administration believes the "chances are high" of getting a health care bill by then. But new analyses showing runaway costs are jeopardizing Senate passage.
'Could be a nightmare'
"Instead of a dream, this routine report could be a nightmare," Tony Fratto, a former Treasury Department official and White House spokesman under President George W. Bush, said of the delayed budget update. "There are some things that can't be escaped."
The administration earlier this year predicted that unemployment would peak at about 9 percent without a big stimulus package and 8 percent with one. Congress did pass a $787 billion two-year stimulus measure, yet unemployment soared to 9.5 percent in June and appears headed for double digits.
Obama's current forecast anticipates 3.2 percent growth next year, then 4 percent or higher growth from 2011 to 2013. Private forecasts are less optimistic, especially for next year.
Any downward revision in growth or revenue projections would mean that budget deficits would be far higher than the administration is now suggesting.
Setting the stage for bleaker projections, Vice President Joe Biden recently conceded, "We misread how bad the economy was" in January. Obama modified that by suggesting the White House had "incomplete" information.
The new budget update comes as the public and members of Congress are becoming increasingly anxious over Obama's economic policies.
A Washington Post-ABC News survey released Monday shows approval of Obama's handling of health-care reform slipping below 50 percent for the first time. The poll also found support eroding on how Obama is dealing with other issues that are important to Americans right now — the economy, unemployment and the swelling budget deficit.
The Democratic-controlled Congress is reeling from last week's testimony by the head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, that the main health care proposals Congress is considering would not reduce costs — as Obama has insisted — but "significantly expand" the federal financial responsibility for health care.
That gave ammunition to Republican critics of the bill.
Citing the CBO testimony, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Monday accused Democrats of "burying this budget update until after Congress leaves town next month." He called the budget-update postponment "an attempt to hide a record-breaking deficit as Democratic leaders break arms to rush through a government takeover of health care."
White House budget office spokesman Tom Gavin disagreed, noting the delay was "really not something out of the norm" and is typical for a president's first year. Gavin noted that President George W. Bush's budget office did not release the mid-session review in his first year until August 22; in President Bill Clinton's first year, it did not come out until Sept. 1.
Obama also didn't release his full budget until early May — instead of the first week in February, when he put out just an outline
Late last week, Obama vowed anew that "health insurance reform cannot add to our deficit over the next decade and I mean it."
The nation's debt — the total of accumulated annual budget deficits — now stands at $11.6 trillion. In the scheme of things, that's more important than talking about the "deficit," which only looks at a one-year slice of bookkeeping and totally ignores previous indebtedness that is still outstanding.
Even so, the administration has projected that the annual deficit for the current budget year will hit $1.84 trillion, four times the size of last year's deficit of $455 billion. Private forecasters suggest that shortfall may actually top $2 trillion.
Budget updates in previous administrations have given rise to charges that the White House was manipulating its figures to offer too rosy an outlook. Critics will be watching closely when the White House's Office of Management and Budget releases the new numbers.
Still, the update mainly involves plugging in changes in economic indicators, not revising program-by-program details. And indicators such as unemployment and gross domestic product changes have been public knowledge for some time.
Standard & Poor's chief economist David Wyss said part of the problem with the administration's earlier numbers is that "they were just stale," essentially put together by budget number-crunchers at the end of last year, before the sharp drop in the economy.
Wyss, like many other economists, says he expects the recession to last at least until September or October. "We're looking for basically a zero second half (of 2009). And then sluggish recovery," he said.
Even as it prepares to put larger deficit and smaller growth figures into its official forecast, the administration is looking for signs of improvement.
"If we were at the brink of catastrophe at the beginning of the year, we have walked some substantial distance back from the abyss," said Lawrence Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser.